Former director of Creaforti and Maastricht University (UM) School of Business and Economics (SBE) alumnus Willem van de Kerkhof spoke with us about the challenges of entrepreneurship. As one of the founders of telecom supporter Creaforti back in 2004, van de Kerkhof saw his company flourish: Creaforti is both KPN excellence partner and Vodafone solutions partner. He shared with us his experiences of the launch, the growth and his exit from the company.
You co-founded Creaforti. Can you tell us what Creaforti does?
Creaforti is a telecom supplier for the business market in the Netherlands. It delivers fixed and mobile telephony, cell phones and Internet connections, and offers consultancy to companies of all sizes in the country.
How did you become an entrepreneur?
It all started in high school, in the Dutch city of Boxmeer, at the end of the 1990s. It was the time when you could see the mobile phone market evolving. My friends Koen and Paul and I had our own mobile phones early on.
Because this was a novelty at the time, classmates started asking us what phone was best to buy: should I buy via Libertel or Dutchtone [the brands in those days], and from what store should I buy my phone? What is the cheapest subscription? We happily advised them in their choices, based on our experiences with buying our own phones.
Around that time, while working part-time jobs in the local supermarket, we (15-year-old boys with big mouths) agreed: if we were in charge of the supermarket, we would do a way better job. From there, the seed of starting our own company was planted in our brains.
Years later, when Paul studied commercial economics in Arnhem, he had the chance to graduate by setting up his own company. At that point, the idea of starting up a company together turned into reality.
Taking into account our mutual interest in telecom, we started making plans for how to advise companies on their choices on this market, which came down to finding the cheapest mobile telephony subscription that suited their needs.
How did you get from making plans to actual customers?
We spent about a year making plans. It involved schedules, computational models, questions such as: “do you expect your company to make less or more phone calls next year?” In practice, we would later find out, companies just gave us their phone bills and asked: “Can you make us a less expensive offer?” Theory often doesn’t meet practice. I think we looked only once at the business plan Paul graduated on with a straight A.
In 2004, we had our first real customer: a freelance consultant that my friend Paul accidently ran into at Belcompany [a phone store] where he worked at the time. The consultant needed advice on his business phone subscription, but Belcompany could not offer this. Paul was bold enough to offer his own help. Together, they looked at his phone bills to see what the best option would be. The advice was happily taken, but the consultant immediately asked us to arrange the subscription for him, too. Paul did this as a Belcompany employee, and we were able to ask a small fee for the advice. This started to happen more often: small companies and freelancers were asking for our advisory service.
At a certain point, we decided to call companies ourselves offering our help. We noticed that a lot of companies (just as our first customer) were happy with the advice, but explicitly asked us to arrange the subscriptions, too.
Apparently, our customers did not want to put time and effort into finding nor in arranging the most economical telecom solution. Very soon, therefore, our company evolved from having only an advising role, as planned, to being a supplier as well.
And with great results! How do you explain the success of Creaforti?
We did not do any research, nor did we know the market that well. I studied at SBE at that time and did sales for Creaforti—unsuccessfully, 99 times per 100 phone calls. Koen also studied in Maastricht and was responsible for the financial administrative part. Paul did networking and sales, too. In the beginning, our customers often pointed us to certain options we had never heard of. Pretty embarrassing, but we learned from it.
There were a lot of competitors, but we really believed that we were the best our customers could get; finally, things would be taken care of properly and in a solid way. This might sound arrogant, but the telecom business was not that transparent, and it was a commercial business with a lot of parties that just wanted to make money.
What we heard back from our customers at that time was: nice enthusiastic lads, they run for you, they really think with you. These are still the values of the company.
The market changed majorly. Therefore, Creaforti started to take on Internet solutions, too; that’s what our customers asked for. And at the moment, Creaforti still does a lot of consultancy, advising ICT-managers on their Internet and phone networks. We always tried to put our costumers first. They are the most important, they pay your salary. I believe that is also part of our success.
You studied at SBE. How did this prepare you for your success?
I studied International Business, and now I live 6 kilometers from where I work and all the customers of Creaforti are Dutch. But that’s not to say that my time at UM didn’t bring me anything. I did learn how to think in a critical manner. I really learned to think and not take information for granted.
What really had my interest back then were the courses of an ex-manager of Philips, Friso den Hertog. He offered us case studies on existing companies of all sizes. Why are they successful? What is it they do right? Very concrete. I was always very practice-oriented.
How would you advise young entrepreneurs? What wisdom can you share?
My first piece of advice: don’t become an entrepreneur for the money. I see a lot of start-ups that set “getting rich” as their main goal. It will not work. I believe you need another motivation to be ready to put a lot of time in a new company: you need to love it. You will miss parties and have to work long evenings.
If you don’t love what you do, it will be very hard to sacrifice. Also, your customers will notice when money is the main goal. It doesn’t make you a likeable entrepreneur. In the first years, all the money Creaforti earned went immediately back into the company.
Our customers, suppliers and new employees noticed we had fun and that earning a lot of money was not our goal. I believe that accounted for our likeability and therefore to good business.
And second, my own biggest lesson: never forget your customers. That sounds logical, but I noticed that the focus, especially as soon as the company got bigger, easily shifted to matters of secondary importance: new desks, new employees, another office. I caught myself thinking, “that’s too much right now!” when a customer called. At that moment I knew, wait, I need to get back to the start.
That sounds like a challenge. Was this the biggest challenge over the years?
The biggest challenge for me was not to lose the drive and motivation I had in the beginning. Creaforti went from 3 to 30 to 50 employees over the years. It was difficult to keep the “we can do it” mentality. At a certain moment, you start operating like a bigger company; you have the responsibility for your employees and start thinking things like, “the customer cannot expect us to (fill in the blank)”. But I really feel that, even if you are a company of 50 people, “let’s do it” needs to be the attitude.
The director of one of the companies we did business with once told me, “I only do business with two kinds of suppliers: small companies, because for them everything is possible, or the real big guys who offer low prices because of their volume. Everything in between, with about a 100 employees, misses both advantages.”
You left Creaforti this year. Why? And what will you do next?
A company changes a lot as soon as it gets more employees. Over the years, I went from a hands-on guy in the workplace to a manager. That’s why I am at home at the moment; managing did not make me happy anymore. I am an introverted person, which can have advantages in sales. At least that’s what our customers would tell me: their satisfaction with someone who listens before handing out a solution was big. But having to manage the company gave me an agenda full with managerial meetings, and I’m too impatient for this task. The company became my boss instead of me being the boss of the company.
I’m still a shareholder, and I think Creaforti is a great working place: nice colleagues, good atmosphere. For me, it’s time for a new challenge, though. My strength is in building up something, taking the next step. Therefore, I hope to find myself in the future in a project-based consultancy position. Ideally working a couple of years for a company and helping them develop their business.